Archive for the 'Barth' Category

“…the Bible tells me so.”

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Like many of you, I learned the song early in my Sunday School career. But our Sunday School teachers probably didn’t mention Karl Barth, one of the twentieth century’s premier theologians. Toward the end of his life he was asked to sum up the meaning of all he’d learned about Christian theology. He reflected a moment, then said simply, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Another time we’ll explore the depth of that profoundly simple sentence. Right now let’s focus on that last phrase–“…the Bible tells me so.”

The Bible is Christianity’s sacred text. Some Christians use “The Bible says…” as a “bulletproof” phrase that automatically validates their position. Trouble is, different Christians read the same book and conclude that “the Bible says” very different and often contradictory things. In relatively recent  history that’s happened with regard to slavery, racial segregation, the place of women in the life of the church and in society, abortion, eschatology–the final chapter of the divine-human drama–and homosexuality. Both sides in the curent homosexuality debate  insist their position is the truly biblical one. Common ground is excruciatingly hard to find. After nearly three decades of debate on the issue, last spring’s United Methodist General Conference couldn’t even pass a motion that said in effect, “We agree that we disagree.” Other mainline denominations have had their own bitterly divisive struggles. The church leaders caught up in these fierce struggles have prayerfully and thoughtfully reached strongly-held but diametrically-opposed conclusions about the issue. Most would affirm that “…the Bible tells me so”even though the Bible told their neighbor something very different. 

So what’s an ordinary, non-seminary-trained, non-Ph.D. person of faith to do? A complete answer requires a dense, thick book like the ones Karl Barth wrote. But Barth gave us a starting point: “I take the Bible too seriously to take it literally.” The Bible isn”t one book. It’s a rich, diverse collection of sixty-six books, not including the Apocrypha. These books were composed over more than a thousand years in various places by various people, many of whom we cannot identify. The most recent of those writings was completed in the late first century or early second century CE. The world of these writings is very different from our own. “Taking the Bible seriously” means for me that discovering what “the Bible says” to us today  begins with understanding what a particular passage said to those who first heard it. How did those people live? What historical events affected them? What languages did they speak and write? How have those languages (mostly Hebrew in the Old Testament, Greek and a little Aramaic in the New Testament) evolved? What were these peoples’ religious beliefs? What other nations, religions, and civilizations influenced them? What energized them? What kept them up at night?

“Taking the Bible seriously” means not superimposing our ideas and worldview on these ancient texts. We let poetry be poetry (Psalms, Song of Solomon, and much more). We let Genesis affirm the power and glory of God who created all that is without trying to turn it into a science text. We marvel at the way God used great sinners like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and many more. We worry less about who wrote a book (often many people through a long process of revision and editing) and more about what’s said and what it means.We don’t apply contemporary standards of accuracy to the historical and biographical books. We understand that the gospels are faith statements about who Jesus is more than biography. We understand apocalyptic literature (e.g. Daniel, Revelation) first by its message to its original audience. We refuse to treat these books or any part of the Bible as encrypted code that describes the end of history.

In short, “taking the Bible seriously” for me means appreciating its “other-ness” and being skeptical of folks who say “the Bible says” too easily and too casually. Those folks likely haven’t done their homework; worse yet, they don’t think it’s necessary. Repeating “The Bible says” too easily suggests that the speaker is manipulating the Bible to validate an already-chosen position, rather than using it in a process of open-ended seeking of God’s wisdom.

“So what’s an ordinary, non-seminary-trained, non-Ph.D. person of faith to do?” Take the Bible too seriously to take it literally. Learn all you can about the people and cultures that produced the biblical books. Don’t settle for too-simple answers. Ask your pastor to provide Bible study that takes the Bible seriously, not literally. Disciple Bible Study is a great United Methodist option. Read books like N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus, or Eugene Peterson’s Reversed Thunder and Eat This Book. Walter Brueggemann’s writings are also helpful, though some may find them more scholarly and less accessible. We want to learn to think like biblical people as well as contemporary people.

Here’s the Good News. When, with Barth, we “take the Bible too seriously to take it literally,” we discover at a deeper level the simple truth that he identified as his bottom line bedrock faith: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”


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